by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Time will say nothing but I told you so”…
Auden (But I can’t)
Last week, Sri Lanka experienced an outrage unprecedented in its annals. A group of uniform-wearing students, led, aided and abetted by a mob of parents, launched a violent attack on the incoming principal in a Galle school. Even police protection was of no avail; in the end the principal had to flee, to save himself.
The sin attributed by the attackers to the principal, to justify their criminal conduct, is not clear. But even if the attackers thought the principal was guilty of the most cardinal of crimes, such as murder or child abuse, their reaction should not have overstepped the necessary boundaries of legality and civility. Students attacking a teacher or a principal cannot be deemed acceptable under any circumstances; as for the parents who participated – and perhaps orchestrated – this outrage, the only suitable place for them is jail or parliament.
The abomination at Vidyaloka Vidyalaya, Galle, is symbolic and symptomatic of the malady of violent-intolerance besetting Sri Lanka. Intolerance and violence are becoming endemic in our country.
The younger generation is beginning to regard intolerance as the moral-ethnical norm and violence as the most optimum way to settle any difference.
Post-war, and under the tutelage of the Rajapaksas, a new commonsense is infesting the land. This commonsense esteems power and strength as the sole desiderata and despises physical and politico-economic weakness. It is creating a new society in which the powerful and the rich will always have their way while the poor and the powerless are denied even their ineffectual say.
Everyday, ordinary people see the powerful taking law into their hands, with impunity. Everyday, ordinary people see the powerful getting away with misdeed after misdeed, crime after crime, from traffic violation to corruption and murder. Everyday, ordinary people see the law of the rulers replacing the rule of law.
We live in a country where a minister can tie a public official to a tree or threaten a magistrate and get away with it. We live in a country where a ministerial offspring can assault an army officer and suffer no ill effects.
We live in a country where a parliamentarian, who is a key suspect in a quadruple murder case, can remain a free man. We live in a country where the Presidential brother-in-law can admit that he stashed smuggled foreign currency in his home, without having to fear any police-action.
We live in a country where politicians and their underlings live as if they are above the law, openly, blatantly.
Mob-violence at the bottom is the inevitable response to illegality at the top. When law becomes the plaything of the powerful and even judges are not safe, ordinary people, without power or money, respond with the only weapon they have – the weapon of numbers. And the culture of mob-violence is born.
This is the context in which the outrage at the Vidyaloka Vidyalaya could have and did happen.
Wave of Violence
Sri Lanka is experiencing a wave of violent crimes. Crimes against the more vulnerable segments of society, especially children, are increasing at an alarming rate.
Religious intolerance is rife and the perpetrators of such attacks often get away with it. Violence has become the norm even at sports events; it is the first resort of the defeated when a match is lost or the disappointed when match-tickets run out.
The abomination at Vidyaloka Vidyalaya warns that the bacilli of violent-intolerance have entered the bloodstream of the next generation. If preventive measures are not taken, fast, Sri Lanka’s descent into criminality and ungovernability will be inevitable. And our future will be even worse than our past.
Imagine the meme-change required to make students mount a physical attack on a principal; imagine the meme-change required to make parents orchestrate/take part in such an attack.
Consider what it says about the present state and the future trajectory of our society.
If the danger of the contagion affecting Lankan society is not understood, it will explode into a moral-ethical bubonic plague. That plague will do to Sri Lanka what Black Death did to Europe. This moral-ethical plague will denude Sri Lanka of every ounce of humanity, decency and consideration and turn it into an unliveable country.
Will the Vidyaloka attack be swept under the carpet of forgetting, like so many other outrages? The entire incident has been recorded by the media and with the aid of those pictures, the police should be able to catch at least some of the alleged perpetrators.
Even if the police are reluctant to move against the students, they need not have any compunction about moving against those parents who took part in the attack and possibly masterminded it.
If the adult attackers get away with their anti-civilisational crime, what message will that send to other students and other parents? And what guarantee do we have that versions of the Vidyaloka attack will not happen in other schools?
If so, the day may not be far off when students assaulting teachers and children assaulting parents become entrenched as new societal norms.
The war is over but the war-mentality remains. The militarization of political discourse has rendered societally acceptable the zero-sum division of us vs. them. This intolerant perception, which equates difference with crime and dissent with enmity, is overstepping political boundaries into non-political spheres. If the one with whom we have a difference of opinion, a problem, an issue is the ‘Other’ and this ‘Other’ is always an enemy out to undermine us in fundamental ways, minute variations are automatically and inevitably blown into ‘wars’.
This distorted logic justifies the use of violence as the first and only resort against the ‘inimical’ other. Arguments, discussions and debates become unnecessary; compromises, agreeing to live and let live are seen as betrayal. A no-holds barred total assault is enshrined as the only proper response to any problem.
So Buddhists attack mosques and Christian pastors. Buddhists also attack other Buddhists (including monks), because they interpret the doctrine differently. Muslims attack each-other for sectarian reasons. A Mahanayaka Thera receives threatening letters for expressing a view unpalatable to his more extremist co-religionists. Christian leaders oppose new progressive laws needed to protect women and children.
Indifference to real crime follows the criminalisation of difference. Society is violently intolerant of differences of opinion but culpably indifferent to violent crimes. In this distorted world, doctrinal or political difference is a greater crime than child abuse.
If this is our present, will not our future consist of a war of ‘all against all’?
Advice Begins at Home
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a busy man. One of his many duties is offering advice. Last week he advised the media and the judiciary on how to fulfil their responsibilities.
He reportedly told the media to use mellifluous words. And he advised the judiciary “to safeguard the supremacy of the people and not to work for the protection of certain individuals” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 5.10.2012).
Unexceptionable, even laudable advice; Media should avoid obscene language and the judiciary must place societal wellbeing above the ‘protection of certain individuals’.
The only issue is that the President should have start dispensing this advice closer to home, to his kith and kin, to his cabinet, his parliamentarians and his officials.
Why not advise Minister Mervyn Silva to abjure violence, verbal and physical? Why not advise Minister SB Dissanayake to mind his language? Why not advise Brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to discipline his unruly tongue?
Why not advise the AG’s Department – which President Rajapaksa took under his wing two years ago – to advise the police to implement the judicial order regarding parliamentarian Duminda Silva? Additional Magistrate of Colombo ordered the police to arrest Duminda Silva more than seven months ago.
The police are yet to move a finger to implement this judicial ruling, because they have not being told to do so by the AG’s Department. Perhaps the President can offer some valuable advice to the AG’s Department to place public wellbeing above the ‘protection of certain individuals’, with powerful political connection?
Perhaps the President can also ask the police and the AG’s Department (both are under his control after all) why they have not taken any legal action against Sri Lankan Chairman Nishantha Wickremesinghe even after he admitted to keeping smuggled foreign currency.
While he is at it, why doesn’t the President move decisively to reduce waste and corruption?
That too would be in public interest. And some of those billions can be used for education, health and poverty alleviation. The President, in his guise as the Minister of Finance, can easily undertake this task. For instance, according to media reports, 40 million rupees are spent annually on maintaining that interesting category of individuals called ‘senior ministers’.
Indubitably, looking after senior citizens is a worthy goal. So why not spend this money for the benefit of a lot of seniors instead of just a handful? Why not use that Rs. 40 million to set up new homes for the aged and to improve the often abysmal conditions in existing ones?
The President should lead by example. Is having a mammoth cabinet in public interest? Is giving those innumerable ministers uncountable perks and privileges in public interest? Is allowing the powerful to ignore/break the law with impunity in public interest? Is launching a witch-hunt against the judiciary in public interest? Is encouraging a personality cult and financing it with national funds in public interest?
Is it not inane to waste borrowed money on airports, harbours, tall towers and other prestige projects which bring very little benefit to the county, economy of the people? Is it not self-aggrandizement to name every other new project after the President? Is it not hypocritical talk against political family trees while actively cultivating one’s own?
Is it not about time to bridge the gap between the political rhetoric and everyday Lankan reality?